Heavy on the vine they hang, loaded with sugar and ashy with bloom. They cling to their clutches just as they did 8000 years ago, when the people of Georgia first crushed them to fill kvevris that they buried underground. Then, as now, the fruit was left to swim in its own juice, a cold, silent simmer, only to emerge months later transformed, destined to wet the throats of billions. Our poison and our purifier: wine.

Today we are taught that ancient Greeks diluted their wine. It’s more accurate to say that Greeks poured wine into their water to purify it. Where water was often contaminated with bacteria and parasites, water mixed with wine was—if not sterile—at least far safer. The traditional ratio was three parts water to one part wine, sometimes less. Pliny the Elder, author of the world’s first encyclopedia, recounts a very old vintage, “sweet and unmixed, a drink divine,” reserved by an elder statesman for his most distinguished guests. To serve, he would “fill one cup and pour it into twenty measures of water.” 

Jesus carried on this tradition. As his pal John tells it, Jesus asked servants to fill washing jugs with water. When drunk, this water became fine wine, miraculously purified. Later, when Jesus hung on the cross, a Roman guard stabbed his side, and from the wound poured a mixture of blood and water. Water purified by blood. Water purified by wine.

Centuries later, we have mostly forgotten about the water part. Devout Catholics add just a few drops of water to their wine before serving the Eucharist, the barest nod to Jesus’s thinned out blood. European winemakers grapple with the grape undiluted, allowing nothing to touch the grape except the yeast that feeds it. But today in California, grapes are left on the vine longer and longer, developing bigger and bolder flavors. Such grapes are extra sweet and prone to booziness. So some vintners add water to the tank, thinning the sweetness and slowing the ferment. This keeps things in balance.

Water and wine, partners again.

I rarely drink wine, particularly if it is red. Tannins disagree with me, the same argument they had with my father and grandfather. Tannins come from the skin of the grape, and they make for a thirsty drink. They parch my gums and thicken my blood, leaving me with sallow cheeks and red-stained lips. They make me feel like a vampire’s willing victim. To stave off these symptoms, I follow the collegiate wisdom imparted to me at an early age, alternating between wine and water. Better the wine drink from the tap than from my veins.

I wish the California Central Valley would do the same. Although the Mokelumne River provides an abundant fresh supply, much of it gets diverted North to slake the thirsty throats and grassy lawns of the East Bay. And besides, why irrigate from a river when there is water right underneath your feet? For over a hundred years, farmers have dug pumps to suck groundwater from the Central Valley’s aquifer. Each year, especially in times of drought, we draw more water than the rains can replenish, causing the water table to sink. There are constantly proposals on the ballot for recharging the water table, watering the land as if it too were a crop. This would restore the balance of water beneath the soil. Our efforts so far have underwhelmed.

And our grapes are thirstier and more numerous than ever. Through long, dry summers, they bask and wrinkle on drip-irrigated vines, waiting to be plucked.

Most of them are plucked here, in Lodi. 

Lodi was not always a grape town. In the early days, farmers put down wheat. For a brief while, the county was the wheat capital of the world. Then Midwestern farmers followed their lead, wheat prices crashed, and Lodi switched to watermelon. The melons thrived for awhile, and Lodi proclaimed itself the watermelon capital of the world. But soon, warmer counties further south began to dominate the watermelon market with their abundant early harvests. 

Tired of booms and busts, Lodi turned its eye to an old stalwart: the grape. Grapes had grown steadily and well in Lodi for longer than anyone could remember, thriving in the well-drained sandy loam. There were plenty of grapes native to the area, easy to grow and with hardy rootstock, but their skins were tough and their flavors bitter or gamey. The grape that won the day was the Flame Tokay, a seeded table grape. Like Lodi’s farmers, the Tokay grape had migrated across the ocean before setting down roots in Lodi’s fertile soil. There the abundant iron made the Tokay glow luminous red in the California sun.

In 1907, Lodi went all-in on grapes. The town had just incorporated, no longer dependent on the township for governance, and the time was right to make a splash. The city of Lodi held its first and greatest festival, the Tokay Carnival. In the words of the Lodi Sentinel, “Santa Barbara and Pasadena became famous on account of their flowers; oranges made Los Angeles… let grapes make Lodi famous.” 

And they did. The carnival was a massive and well-publicized affair, drawing 30,000 attendees. For three days, the world’s eye was on a single crop of grapes, a crop that filled a wagon caravan a mile long. Crowds cheered as an endless train of carts delivered their harvest through the three-belled Lodi Gate. All this fell under the dreamy gaze of Berthe de Almado, elected by popular vote, bedraped with $300 worth of jewelry, fine fabrics, and a fur-lined cape. She was the first and only Tokay Carnival Queen.

What would Bacchus think? After all, he was the original grape queen. Did he whisper in her ear as the carts went by, guiding her hand to an unattended glass of wine? Or, constrained by the dignity of her role and the taboos of the time, did she stick to water? 

Maybe she had a bit of both.

Lodi prospered. America ate her grapes and spat out the seeds for the next 75 years. Then, when new seedless hybrids cornered the table grape market, Lodi turned to wine. The fiery Tokay was replaced by older cultivars: Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and dozens of others. Many of these European immigrants were grafted to the robust roots of native cultivars. 

As the fields grew crowded, the wells drilled deeper. During the Tokay Queen’s three-day reign, if you needed water, you could dig fifteen feet and start pumping. Today, some wells in the valley extend thousands of feet underground. The deeper they draw, the older the water. 

Right now, somewhere in Lodi, a farmer is drip-irrigating a grape vine with water that has gone untouched for 20,000 years. That ancient water will mix with the fresh water spilled by the Mokelumne river. Ancient American rootstock will draw in that water, pumping it up through the graft union to feed foreign vines, traversing millenia in just a few feet. The vines they feed were once immigrants, but now have been so thoroughly cross-bred they barely resemble the grapes of the old country. New American fruits swell and sweeten until they are plucked and crushed to bleed our bottles full.

On each bottle’s opening, the queen of wine—buried underground now longer than any kvevri—will lift her ghostly veil to kiss the mouth of a tipsy young American, their cheeks flushed from a heady Bacchanal. The wine may be new, but it is our oldest vintage yet. 

We drink the grape and the grape drinks us until bottle and land are both left empty. Then, by choice or necessity, we will face our sudden and inevitable temperance.